ATLANTA — Firearm-related violence and suicides have increased notably since the COVID-19 pandemic, but new research by a team at Emory University documents just how bad gun violence has become in America. This latest work is the first to display both the overwhelming scale of firearm fatalities in the United States over the past three decades, as well as the growing disparities according to race and ethnicity, age, and location.
Using multiple datasets provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, study authors calculated the national number of firearm deaths and firearm fatality rates per 100,000 people per year from 1990 all the way to 2021. A total of 1,110,421 firearm fatalities occurred in the United States during that time period. Notably, gun fatalities began a steady annual increase starting in 2005, but that upward trajectory accelerated mightily in recent years, including a 20-percent jump between 2019 and 2021.
Next, in an effort to better understand all of the factors contributing to the astounding amount of gun deaths since 1990, researchers performed another analysis focused on identifying trends among specific populations in the U.S. The results were disheartening, to say the least. Study authors say these findings paint a bleak picture of a public health crisis hitting certain demographics much harder than others.
“In 2021, we have reached the highest number of gun fatalities that have ever occurred in the U.S.,” says Chris A. Rees, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and attending physician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, in a university release. “That alone is cause for concern but when we look deeper into the data, the differences in firearm fatalities by demographic group and by intent (homicide vs. suicide) become more evident.”
Who’s dying because of gun violence?
Maximum fatality rates by homicide among Black non-Hispanic men (141.8 fatalities/100,000 persons) significantly surpassed fatality rates among White non-Hispanic men (6.3 fatalities/100,000) and Hispanic men of the same age (22.8 fatalities/100,000 persons). The data also suggests differences in fatalities by intent. Suicides were most common among White non-Hispanic men between ages 80 and 84 (45.2 fatalities/100,000 persons).
“Firearm fatalities accelerated dramatically during the COVID pandemic. Multiple potential factors have likely contributed to this including severe economic distress, an erupting mental health crisis, and a significant uptick in the sale of firearms,” explains Eric Fleegler, MD, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School and emergency medicine physician at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Are men responsible for all of the nation’s gun violence?
Additionally, researchers also created heat maps which visually illustrate the evolving U.S. firearm violence epidemic. This project represents the first time that multidimensional heat maps have documented variations in firearm fatality rates across demographic groups over time. Study authors explain that upon studying the heat maps, it quickly became clear to them that men are not the sole driving force behind the rise in gun fatalities.
White non-Hispanic females also had increased firearm fatality rates during this time period, mainly in relation to increases in suicide. However, those rates were still significantly lower than among males. Regarding Black non-Hispanic females, death rates by firearm-related homicide have more than tripled since 2010.
Meanwhile, further stratification of the data displays differing patterns according to geography.
“We used county-level data to measure the geographic distribution of firearm fatalities across the U.S.,” Prof. Rees notes. “Increases in firearm fatalities started in the West before spreading to the South, while homicide rates were mainly concentrated in the South during this time period.”
Researchers stress that their findings make it clear that increases in firearm fatalities are not consistent among all age groups and ethnicities. The demographic disparities appear to be growing worse by the year, suggesting public health interventions tailored to specific demographic groups and differences by intent are necessary.
For instance, current suicide prevention efforts in the U.S. may not be all that helpful for older men. County-level rates, meanwhile, can be used to help find opportunities for community-based interventions: education regarding safe firearm storage, child access prevention laws, and violence intervention programs.
In conclusion, the research team posits that as gun violence continues to claim more and more American lives, multiple interventions at various levels will be needed to address the issue across society.
The findings appear in JAMA Network Open.